How far can Israeli and Palestinian leaders go toward promulgating a common document on the future of the peace process, in advance of the regional summit scheduled for November in Washington? The initial expectations, when the process was set in motion, were quite low, and many dismissed the meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as little more than window dressing. Nevertheless, under steady but careful American guidance—and fed by the new strategic momentum, paradoxically created by the violent Hamas coup in Gaza—they have gone beyond the symbolic stage: Olmert now speaks openly, as he did when he met U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, earlier this week, of the need to give Abbas substantive offers that would bolster his standing among his own people rather than "force him into concessions over lunch, which would ruin him by dinnertime."
What the Palestinians negotiators want is an extensive Framework Agreement on the Permanent Status (FAPS), a model used in talks and various back channels between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat in 1999-2000—in other words, a detailed, albeit not final, text outlining the solutions to the three decisive questions: borders (and the settlements), Jerusalem, and the so-called "Right of Return"—even if they recognize that the implementation of such an agreement would be a much slower and more cautious process than they could have hoped for before the violence began. This, however, is not in the cards. The political risks for Olmert are too high, the rewards too low, and the practical problems to be solved—on these three questions and on a long list of vital "secondary" issues, from security needs to economics to water—too complex to be resolved within the relevant time frame.
Thus, the talks increasingly focus on a somewhat less ambitious, but nevertheless quite difficult, diplomatic instrument: a Declaration of Principles (DoP), the sort of guiding document that Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, but this time dealing not with the interim stage but with the general principles that would govern the creation of a Palestinian state and the negotiations over the permanent status issues. Such a DoP might include:
- Reference to the 1967 lines as a baseline for a territorial solution—but qualified by a Palestinian recognition that, because of "realities on the ground" (the settlement blocs), significant modifications may be necessary (without reference, as yet, to the proportions of future "swaps," which would not be on a 1:1 scale, but of some symbolic value).
- Language about Jerusalem that would envision a Palestinian sovereign presence in parts of its present area—but again, without specific lines drawn on a map, and with a clear indication that the "Holy Basin," i.e., the Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Mount of Olives—would require a special disposition in the (uncertain) future.
- An even more nebulous formulation of words dealing with the refugees, essentially allowing for their gradual return to the new Palestinian state, whereas any numbers returning to "Israel proper" would be subject to Israeli agreement. For Abbas—himself a refugee from Safed, and by no means an authoritative figure able to sell his own people on a decisive break with their foundational myth of "return"—this may prove to be the worst stumbling block.
Even if it does not, the DoP is by no means a "done deal." True, the benefits for Olmert in offering far-reaching concessions (for the time being, only on paper, not on the ground, and subject to approval by a referendum or by elections, but nevertheless, decisive and perhaps irreversible) are taking shape:
- In the Palestinian context, these concessions would help Abbas and his party to isolate Hamas, offering a sharp contrast between their achievements (and a better life, under their rule, in the West Bank) and the misery of Hamas's violent regime in Gaza; and thus set the stage for the next power struggle, with all that it implies for Israel and for the region.
- Moreover, a sense of achievement in November, amidst a growing crisis with Iran, would help the U.S. (and France, which takes a rough-and-ready line on this question) cobble together a vital coalition—as more and more global and regional attention is focused on reversing Iran's nuclear bid.
- Less important, but symbolically significant, would be the presence in Washington of Arab leaders who have never before met their Israeli counterparts—the Saudis and other Gulf monarchs—perhaps leading to the establishment of formal relations, at some level, with Arab countries that had an Israeli presence in the 1990s but removed it when "Arafat's war" began.
- Finally, yet in some respects first of all, there would be the impact of such a breakthrough on Olmert's own prospects for political survival—his elevation, to borrow the term that Israeli journalists used when they described Ariel Sharon's status during the Disengagement crisis, to the rank of an etrog, the sacramental citrus fruit of Sukkot, guarded in a padded silver box against the iniquities of police investigations and political intrigues. It is safe to assume that if the government does sign a workable DoP, it would be extremely difficult for Ehud Barak and the Labor Party to break ranks and go for early elections in 2008.
And yet the sheer complexity of what is at stake, and the questions surrounding Abbas's ability to deliver on any real and painful compromise, may outweigh these considerations and bring down the level of expectations. In several important respects, it is even more difficult now to achieve a breakthrough than it was in 2000. The lessons of the terror campaign, and more recently of what happened in Gaza since the Disengagement, are bitter and specific: They require Israeli negotiators to leave nothing to trust when it comes to security measures (and keeping the final border far enough away from the Tel Aviv conurbation and Ben-Gurion Airport). Meanwhile, regional dynamics and the ascendancy of Iran (while the U.S. is perceived to be mired in Iraq) offer few incentives for Israel to take risks—an attitude reflected in the skeptical reactions of Ehud Barak and the Ministry of Defense to the prospects of an early agreement. Above all else, there are aspects of the proposed DoP—in particular, the disposition of Jerusalem and the prospect of further withdrawals—that could ignite a firestorm of protest on the Israeli right, which is determined to be less docile than it was in 2005.
In any case, even if the outcome by November falls short of a decisive breakthrough, the present efforts will not be wasted. They provide a political framework for another vital element in Israeli-Palestinian relations—the intensive work being done to revive the economic interactions that had been brought low, first by the violence of Arafat's last years and then by the consequences of the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, won by Hamas. Now, with the Islamist politicians out of the way, the level of violence greatly reduced (in the West Bank; the situation in Gaza is far more dangerous), and the Israeli economy booming at an amazing annual growth rate of 6.6 percent, the synergies may just be there to make a real difference for the lives of ordinary people on both sides—which is, in many ways, as important for the future of peace as the diplomatic dilemmas posed by the DoP.